FAA vs. the birds

Binoculars, check. Firecrackers, check. Tame bird of prey, check. Updated bird strike posters, check. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are seasoned bird watchers, with about 50 years notched up through the Wildlife Hazard Mitigation Program. 

The Feds have good reason to take up ornithology. Bird strikes can prove a major hazard at airports. At best a bird strike is causes serious expense, damaging airframes and engines. At worst a bird strike could cause a fatal accident. 

Flight 1549 ditched in the Hudson River due to errant Canada Geese. On that occasion superior airmanship saved the day, but the incident was a salutary warning. 

Last month a Bombardier Q-400 made an emergency landing at Seattle Tacoma International Airport after a collision with a single bird pierced the nose cone. 

In California alone 22 engines received substantial damage from bird strikes last year, one engine was completely destroyed.

Bird strike data became available online in 2009 via the FAA Wildlife Strike Database, which includes historical reports. It’s not just birds, either – assorted critters and varmints are in the FAA’s sights.

The database represents one strand in the struggle against wildlife threats to aviation. Other approaches include new posters to raise awareness among aviators. 

There are many, many other initiatives to keep up with the flocks.

On the technology front work continues to create more accurate avian radar. The problem at the moment is that current avian radar is great at following seasonal bird patterns, less so with specific threats. Migration routes can be plotted and avoided. According to a report from the Swiss Ornithological Institute’s Felic Liechti and the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s Hans van Gasteren, providing more up-to-the-minute information is difficult. “In principle, these radar measurements inform about a general increase in the risk of a bird strike, but they barely represent the specific local bird strike risk at a specific airport,” says the report.

Whatever predictive technologies are in the works airports are going to face ongoing challenges with habitat management. Lasers, firecrackers, dummy hawks, noise generators, sonic cannon and terrain management all play a role – as do modifications to aircraft routines.  

Perhaps the biggest challenge comes for airports that opt to cull birds. DNAinfo New York reports JFK International Airport shot 26,000 birds in five years, including 1,600 from protected species. Local environmental groups are less than pleased.

With climate change protestors, anti-noise protestors and NIMBYS pressure groups focussed on airports now is probably not the time for airport authorities to antagonise the twichers. 

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